100&Change: A Prize Competition?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018 - 2:40 pm EDT
Cecilia Conrad

On December 20, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the first recipient of our 100&Change competition’s $100 million grant: an early childhood intervention for children in the Syrian refugee region co-developed by Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee. The Sesame/IRC project was selected over an initial field of more than 1,900 applicants through a multi-stage process that eventually identified four finalists. 

The other three finalists: Catholic Relief Services, HarvestPlus, and Rice 360° Institute for Global Health (Rice University), each received grants of $15 million and a commitment from MacArthur to help identify additional sources of funding. The goal of 100&Change was to make a single grant of $100 million to a single project to solve a problem, tackle a big slice of a problem, or unlock the resources required to solve that problem. This was first time MacArthur undertook this bold initiative and we plan to repeat it every three years.

Although many refer to 100&Change as a prize competition, I have resisted this characterization. For me, the word “prize” brings to mind a classic fairytale in which suitors vie for the hand of a beautiful princess by performing three perilous tasks. For both the winner and the losers, the quest for the princess’ hand (the prize) imposes substantial costs and significant risks (e.g., incineration by dragon’s breath).

With 100&Change, we did not say, “We’ll give you a $100 million when you bring us the dragon’s head.”  We said show us the best meaningful, verifiable, feasible and durableplan to kill the dragon and we will give you a $100 million grant to execute it. We also did not say “You must slay a dragon.” 100&Change was open to any problem from any domain. We said, “Find a problem to solve (that will impress the royal family) and tell us how you will solve it.”

Nevertheless, we did ask participants to make a non-trivial investment in writing a grant proposal. In the first round, we asked for evidence, a video, audited financial statements, memoranda of understanding among collaborators, etc. On average, recipients devoted 40 hours to the preparation of the first-round application and eight semi-finalists had to invest additional resources to work with our technical advisors and prepare a full plan for scaling their promising solution. In recognition of this burden, MacArthur’s Board of Directors awarded each semi-finalist a grant of $250,000 in addition to the in-kind services provided by the Foundation.   

100&Changealso manipulated change levers associated with prize competitions. McKinsey & Company’s influential report And the Winner Is: Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prize associates seven change levers with prize competitions. 100&Change activates all, but one (educating individuals).

  • Identifying excellence
    We asked an interdisciplinary panel of external evaluators to identify excellence, by scoring proposals using our four criteria: meaningful, verifiable, feasible, and durable, and then foregrounded the top scoring proposalson our website. We also invited others, including Charity Navigatorand The Center for High Impact Philanthropy, to apply their own definitions of excellence to our proposals.
  • Influence public perception
    We wanted 100&Change to foster a belief that solutions are possible and were gratified that media outlets such as Forbes, the BBC, The Business of Philanthropy, and Nonprofit Quarterly helped to magnify that message.
  • Focusing communities on specific problems
    Although 100&Change did not focus on a specific problem—the competition was open to any problem or solution from any domain—it forced communities to confront the challenge of scaling. While we engaged MSI Worldwide to help semi-finalists focus on scaling, in retrospect, we should have provided more guidance and coaching to the larger pool of participants.
  • Mobilizing new talent
    Our “feasibility” criteria biased the competition in favor of teams with demonstrable capacity to absorb and effectively deploy a $100 million grant. Hence, it is not surprising that the finalists were organizations with long track records and over 50 employees. The competition did, however, spark new collaborations and attracted quality proposals from young start-ups like semi-finalist, the Human Diagnosis Project.
  • Strengthening problem-solving communities
    Universities such as Arizona State University and University of Massachusetts, Boston have reported that the competition sparked a campus-wide focus on problems solving. We were less successful in creating a community among applicants across institutions. We hope to see more collaborations if we extend the period from announcement to submission deadline.
  • Mobilizing capital
    Some prize competitions mobilize capital by inducing competitors to raise resources in their quest for the prize. Our goal is to mobilize capital by exposing the many good ideas submitted to 100&Change to other funders. To this end, we worked with the Foundation Center to build the 100&ChangeSolutions Bank. We also hosted the Finalists’ Liveevent to showcase the finalists’ projects to an audience that included other foundations, high-net-worth individuals, donor intermediaries and government funders. We can document over $10 million in financial and in-kind support to 100&Change projects and hope for much more.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, I begrudgingly concede that 100&Change was a prize competition. It was neither a recognition of past achievements like the Nobel Prize, nor a carrot to induce the performance of specific tasks like the X-Prize, but something in-between. Although only one suitor earned the hand of the princess, others may yet win the hands of princesses from neighboring kingdoms and, most importantly, everyone survived the dragon’s breath.    

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